Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity

Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. Oxford University Press 1999, xii 395, ISBN 0-19-512505-3 (pbk.) Review originally published in the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History Newsletter 14(2) 2000

(n.b.: This review is of the first edition. Williams has published a second edition, which I have not read.)

The tension between scholars who apply Fouceault's constructionist theory to the study of Roman sexuality and more 'essentialist' scholars who oppose or modify such views was the driving force behind extensive research in this area in the Nineties. The 'essentialist' label has not been helpful, since it applies indiscriminately both to progressive scholars aware of cultural relativism who challenge constructionist views and to conservative classicists who preceded Fouceault or have not concerned themselves with the constructionist critique. (1)

Williams holds a fairly strong constructionist view. His title is ironic. Strictly speaking, he does not believe that 'homosexuality' existed in the Roman mind. The Roman sexual paradigm was relatively indifferent to sexual orientation, and based instead on dichotomies of dominance vs. submission, free vs. slave, and active vs. passive roles: Essentially, a Roman man could use a male or female 'bottom', as long as he was always the 'top'. Williams supports this position with an impressively erudite analysis of the relevant Latin concepts (stuprum, pathicus, etc.) not only in the commonly used sources which have become familiar to readers in this area (such as Juvenal and Martial), but in others new to the discussion. He repeatedly demonstrates the Romans' focus on active/passive, and their indifference to male/female, categorizations. The range of material examined and the quality of the analysis make interesting reading and an indispensable contribution to the subject.
Williams' thorough, unrelenting demonstration of the active/passive paradigm and its indifference to female/male distinctions is a critical step in clearing away modern preconceptions and understanding Roman attitudes and values on their own terms. His broom effectively sweeps aside modern assumptions projected by progressive 'essentialists' like Taylor(2)- who identifies the cult of Cybele as a gay subculture, but whose own comparison of Cybele's devotees with Indian hijras shows that these priests were not essentially same-sex oriented so much as transgender individuals- as well as by conservative classicists, who casually apply to Romans even such culturally laden expressions as "overt homosexual practise".(3)

There are positive contributions as well. Williams shows how the Romans assumed that a man would as likely be attracted to a boy as to a female, and many of the moral and legal strictures cited in the past as suppressing 'homosexuality' were instead aimed at protecting the dominant (i.e., non-passive) status of freeborn males. And he offers a perceptive analysis of Priapus, a characteristically Roman minor deity armed with a major erection ready to penetrate any orifice, as a popular exemplar of the established universal top-man paradigm.

Of course, like any correction, Williams' goes too far.

Perhaps most annoying for historians is his insistence that there was no diachronic change in Roman sexual values from 200 BCE to 200 CE. Although attitudes toward the norms may have shifted, he argues, the norms did not change.

But the normative sexual paradigms which modern theorists can deduce from the ranting of moralists have to be 'fleshed out' with social realities to achieve a sound historical understanding. Lilja (4) established change even in the Republican period, as Rome grew into a sophisticated urban culture. With the Principate, which sacrificed legitimacy for stability, Rome became a cosmopolitan metropolis in which foreign communities such as Asians and Greeks exerted significant influence. The evidence of altered social mores in authors like Martial, Juvenal, and Seneca, the previously unprecedented repressive legislation, and the surprisingly tolerant attitudes of Petronius and Statius are all indicative of a growing malaise with the Priapic paradigm which merits further study.

In fact, my reservations regarding Williams' insistence on the normative paradigm are best illustrated by his presentation of Priapus as an identification model for Roman men. Priapus was a comic figure, ugly, and almost always unsuccessful in his sexual aggressions. He does embody the Roman phallocentric paradigm very nicely. But no intelligent, adult Roman male could have wished to identify with him.
Indeed, Williams' broom brushes past the main objective of Fouceault's own efforts- viz., understanding the role of sex in power and domination-- when he sweeps aside Richlin's comparison of the loathing vented by the Roman moralists on passive men with modern homophobia(5. Granted, the thrust of the Romans' phobia was directed at a man being submissive rather than at a man having sex with another man. However, just like modern homophobia, it served as a kind of 'rear-guard' defense for an oppressive paradigm of masculinity. As such, it targeted traitors to the norm, men who should have been members of the dominant sexual category, but who sacrificed that status; and it inflicted vindictive sanctions. Finally, it betrayed the insecurity of the dominant group by imposing a permanent loss of status even for a single deviant act, regardless of whether or not the individual was assumed to have a lasting preference for his deviant behaviour.

Maud Gleason(6)has shown how insecure the ancients were about their masculinity. She argues that they were especially sensitive because they regarded males and females as innately bisexual and masculinity as an achieved, rather than an innate status. This she regards as differing from our society's assumptions, but I suppose she was never a Boy Scout.

If, as many theorists believe, homophobia is the more basic force which created the social category 'homosexual' in the nineteenth century, then perhaps we should not be asking whether there were homosexuals in Rome, but whether there was something essentially akin to homophobia, and what role it played in the dynamics of power. Although Williams does not draw all of the inferences in this connection, the implications of the information which he presents are fertile.

1. Perhaps the most important progressive critic of constructionism writing specifically on Roman sexuality is Amy Richlin. A concise presentation of her view and its position in the controversy may be found in her article "Not Before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men" (1993) in the Journal of the History of Sexuality 3: 523-573. The title responds to a collection of constructionist articles edited by David M. Halperin, John J. Winkler, and Froma I. Zeitlin, Before Sexuality: Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World (Princeton 1990). More recently, a collection of papers has been issued on Roman Sexualities by Judith P. Hallett and Marylin Skinner (Princeton 1997).

2. Rabun Taylor, "Two Pathic Subcultures in Ancient Rome", Journal of the History of Sexuality 319-371.

3. Elaine Fantham, "Stuprum: Public Attitudes and Penalties for Sexual Offences in Republican Rome", Echoes du Monde Classique/Classical Views 35 (1991), 267-291 (p. 279).

4. Saara Lilja, Homosexuality in Republican and Augustan Rome, Helsinki 1983.

5. op. cit. (above, Footnote 1).

6. Maud Gleason, "The Semiotics of Gender: Physiognomy and Self-Fashioning in the Second Century CE", p. 389-415 in Before Sexuality... (above, Footnote 1).
7 (1997)

The Age of Marriage in Ancient Rome

Review by James Jope published in Italian Quarterly winter/spring 2006

Arnold A. Lelis, William A. Percy, and Beert C. Verstraete, The Age of Marriage in Ancient Rome. Studies in Classics vol. 26, Edwin Mellen Press, 2003

Richard P. Saller and Brent Shaw have studied the age of marriage as indicated by tombstones from the Roman Empire using modern demographic methods, and concluded that men and women married later than traditionally believed. They believe that men, previously thought to marry around 20, wed for the first time in their late twenties; and women, previously thought to marry around the time of menarche, married only late in their teens. The traditional view had been that men wed in their late teens or early twenties and women from 12 to 15.

Lelis, Percy and Verstraete (henceforth ‘LPV’) set out to refute the demographers’ view in this book, and defend the traditional belief.

This is actually the latest round in a dispute dating over a century. Harkness (1896) already argued from inscriptions for late marriage, but Hopkins (1964), for example, albeit himself using mainly epigraphic evidence, rejected Harkness’ interpretation of the data, remarking that Harkness was motivated by Victorian revulsion at the supposed abuse of young girls.

Indeed, more important than the narrow question of marital age are the broader conclusions drawn by authors concerning marriage and the family. Saller classes Rome, under a demographers’ typology, as the ‘Mediterranean type’, and infers that in the later periods and lower classes more reflected by the tombstones, the nuclear family replaced the extended family as the primary structure. LPV insist that the extended family prevailed throughout the Roman period, rejecting the demographic typology as inapplicable to a premodern society.

LPV’s monograph originated in a senior’s honours thesis, and it still reads like a thesis, albeit an outstanding one. The only unfortunate aspect is that the authors’ expressed aim to make it accessible for general readers is neglected. The reader must cope with untranslated and often unexplained legal terminology…

Suffice it here to say that, of the two main types of dowry, a dos profectitia could be recovered by the donor in case of the wife’s death as long as the donor was an agnatic ascendant of the bride. In the case of a dos adventitia, the wife could recover the dowry upon divorce or widowhood by the actio rei uxoriae, which might, however, be reduced in case of her misbehavior or justified expenses on the part of the husband (p. 42)

as well as the mysteries of demographic mathematics:

The relative chances of survival of parents and offspring can be calculated from the same Coale-Demeny Level 3 West-female life-tables that Saller used for his computer model. Realizing that it is not (e0 = 25) but (eaverage fatherhood = x) that is the issue, the following percentages can be calculated… (p. 85)

But the reader who perseveres is doubly rewarded. First, he will find in the appendices a detailed database drawn from written sources, listing far more marriages than were previously known, with biographical circumstances which are important for assessing the data. This admirable compilation, which will be useful for future researchers, could easily have been a separate publication. Secondly, in the body of the text, he will read a diachronic survey drawing on a wide range of ancient sources, which not only backs early marital age, but explains its logic in the overall structure of Roman demography and culture.

Hopkins had already briefly stated the essential points: The high mortality rates of a pre-modern society necessitated early marriage of females and high fertility; and the economic conditions of an agricultural society encouraged an extended family structure. Marriage was not expected to culminate a romantic relationship, but to perpetuate the survival and property of the clan.

LPV explain in detail how these factors unfolded in Rome. Perhaps the strongest aspect of their survey is the thorough presentation of the logic and consequences of Roman law, in particular the patria potestas which was the keystone of the extended family structure-and which, they stress, remained in force throughout the imperial period-and Augustus’ marital reforms. The chapters on the Republic, however, draw on Plautus and Livy as well, and there are several references in subsequent chapters to Pliny’s letters and the imperial historians. The authors allow important concessions signifying a drift toward greater importance for the nuclear family: Marriage sine manu and easy divorce were introduced in the Late Republic, and the lower classes under the Empire were subject to different economic constraints. But the nuclear family could not replace the extended family in a pre-industrial age. And the only group that did indulge extensively in delayed marriage-the old senatorial families during the Empire-became extinct.

The argumentation, as in any fine thesis, is generally reasonable and convincing. Not surprisingly, in view of the controversy, there are a few tendentious exceptions. For example, in spite of Augustus’ traditionalism, it is hardly convincing to present the tyrannical political manipulations of emperors as a typical exercise of patria potestas. Surely any monarchs, especially when their regime is lacking in an established principle of succession, would readily find whatever legal pretexts they required.

As might be expected in a thesis, the authors are always respectful and sometimes too generous towards their opponents. They justify their use of literary as well as epigraphic material, and its speculative assessment, by pointing out that the available material evidence cannot satisfy the requirements of scientific demography, and that the assessment of the tombstones too involves problems and relies on speculation (e.g., how to deal with inscriptions showing the duration of marriage without specifying whether it was the first marriage). Yet still they apologetically accept the designation of their own assessment as ‘impressionistic’.

A glance at one of the major arguments shows little difference between LPV and their opponents in this regard. Saller (1987) compared the frequency of men’s tombstone dedications by parents and by wives. Wives were more frequent for older men, but rare for men between 15 and 19. He concluded that these young men were not married, that wives replaced parents as commemmorators for married men. LPV, however, argue that older men were commemmorated by their wives only because the men’s fathers predeceased them. Analogously, if women dying in their early teens were commemmorated by their parents, Saller inferred that they were not married, but LPV postulate that they had not yet produced surviving offspring and so were still regarded more by their parents than by their husband’s family.

Incidentally, it is surprising that LPV do not object to the inclusion of freedmen’s inscriptions in the sample on which this argumentation is based. A freedman had no paterfamilias. Although his independence was restricted by certain obligations to his former master, he represented the start of a new citizen lineage. His natural father, who, if not dead, might still be enslaved, would not be a likely commemmorator.

If Saller’s explanation seems more ‘natural’ to us, it is because our own society has traditionally been structured on the nuclear family. Both explanations are logically possible; both are unproven; in short, both are ‘impressionistic’. The difference is precisely that Saller’s impression seems to be based on unexamined prejudice- e.g.,

Since in older age brackets…wives…were preferred as commemorators…the complete absence of wife commemmorators for this group surely means that teenage marriages were generally rare for men. (1987, p. 25; my emphasis)

whereas LPV’s conjectures conform with the broader patterns elaborated in their diachronic survey.

As alreadly mentioned, LPV do concede a drift toward a partially enhanced role for the nuclear family precisely in the periods and classes where Saller and others claim to observe it. Some future researcher might be able to construct a reconciliation here. But it would have to be rooted in the kind of broadly based understanding of Roman culture exemplified by LPV’s monograph, and not in the modern presuppositions which seem to have motivated their opponents.

LPV’s use of legal and literary sources to fill out a picture not attested by epigraphy alone does not need any apology. It is rather one of this book’s major strengths. Indeed it should have been taken further. Only the early Republican chapter, with its extensive consultation of Plautus and Livy, really exploits the literary sources satisfactorily. Pliny could be mined more deeply. For example, Letter I, 14, even while attesting the normalcy of arranged marriages, shows an intriguing tinge of hesitancy at placing financial considerations alongside of the character and good looks of the proposed groom. An informed and well reasoned interpretation (a scholarly ‘impression’) of an incident in Petronius which describes the mock wedding and deflowering of a young girl could tell us more about Roman attitudes on this prickly issue. The recurrence in late ancient novels of those far-fetched comedy plots designed to reconcile romantic love with extended-family requirements could be studied to determine to what extent they reflect similar social conditions. Probably also the satiric and the elegiac poets could provide relevant material.

The nuclear family was a Victorian value. It cannot offer the economic security afforded by an extended family, by equal access to careers, or by a welfare state. The persistent role of extended family in immigrant groups throughout the industrial age and in the many households today burdened by the return of underemployed adult offspring shows that the nuclear ideal did not serve the needs of the working poor. It rather served the need of employers for an amenable labour market. Today women’s access to career opportunities, the collapse of real wage levels for menial jobs, and the excessive working hours now required of professional or managerial jobs are already making the ideal of the nuclear family history. It is time to let the Romans too occupy their own place in history.


Harkness, A.G. “Age at Marriage and at Death in the Roman Empire”, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association (1896) 35-72

Hopkins, M.K. “The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage”, Population Studies 18 (1964-65) 309-327

Saller, Richard P. “Men’s Age at Marriage and its Consequences in the Roman Family”, Classical Philology 82 (1987) 21-34